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Sheila C. Johnson

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Paving the Way for a Generation Free of HIV

Posted: 10/07/11 06:40 PM ET

Jackie is a 27-year-old, HIV-positive woman who contracted the virus when she was raped at the age of 15. When her HIV status was disclosed, she was shunned by family and friends and found herself living on the streets. The circumstances under which Jackie was living caused her to miss clinic appointments and not adhere to her medication regimen -- behaviors that can lead to drug-resistance and new infections. Jackie is from Uganda, but this could easily be the story of a young woman in the U.S.

Social stigma related to HIV continues to be a major barrier to preventing the spread of HIV both in Africa and in the U.S., and significantly impacts the numbers of those who seek treatment. In the District of Columbia, one in 20 residents is infected with HIV, and one in 50 has AIDS. In Uganda, the infection rate is 6.4 percent.

Recently, Jackie made her first trip to the U.S. where she insisted on meeting and speaking with as many individuals and groups as possible. With them, she shared the story of how she contracted HIV and the resulting stigma that nearly led to her death. She also talked about the specialized counseling, treatment, and skills-building she received at Accordia Global Health Foundation's Infectious Diseases Institute in Kampala, Uganda, a center of excellence in the heart of Africa. This specialized care has given her the courage to speak out.

After meeting Jackie and Accordia's president, Dr. Warner Greene, I decided to make my first trip to Uganda. There I spent time with the doctors, nurses, lab technicians, researchers, professors, counselors, volunteers, patients, and countless others at the Infectious Disease Institute, who are turning the vision of a healthier future into a reality. If it were not for them, Jackie and countless others would not be alive.

In her modest home, Jackie recounted for me what she learned during her time in the U.S. She discovered that (as in Africa), U.S. organizations -- despite years of public education -- face many of the same struggles engaging young people to seek treatment. Jackie and I agreed that fear, ignorance, and low self-esteem are crippling young people. To address these issues, Jackie as well as the IDI doctors, nurses, lab technicians, researchers, professors, and counselors I met during my visit discussed strategies for long-term capacity building with applications for home and abroad.

The takeaway from my trip was clear: to create a generation free from HIV, every individual -- including those who are HIV negative - must take personal responsibility for leading healthy lifestyles and must be educated to reduce stigma. As a global community, we must redouble our efforts to increase access to care, education, and psycho-social support while research is underway to identify new prevention and treatment options. As we learned from Jackie -- stepping up to support young people who are HIV-positive will pay tremendous dividends in the global fight to prevent new HIV infections.

As Washington D.C. prepares to welcome the first U.S.-hosted International AIDS Conference in 2012, it is time to take stock of our shared stories, shared lessons, and shared responsibilities.

It is also time to ensure that we are addressing this global crisis in smart, leveraged ways. Next week, I will participate in a Congressional Roundtable on Centers of Excellence in Africa and the contributions of the US private sector in driving health innovation and leadership. Return here on October 12 when I'll share comments and observations on this important meeting.

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Jackie, her counselor, Adeline Twimukye, my chief of staff, Giardy Ritz, and I discuss finishing her business degree, career goals and advocay work.